The executive behind the 'Easy Rider' exterior Rebel stereotype often far from reality of Bike Week

March 08, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In the black leather, exhaust pipe extravaganza known as Bike Week, close to a half-million motorcycle enthusiasts descended on this city of about 63,000 residents to partake of the engine revving, beer drinking and girlfriend flaunting of biker lore.

Bars still post "No Colors" signs that forbid patrons from wearing identifying jackets that could provoke brawls between rival motorcycle clubs. Contests held throughout the city and the rest of Volusia County's coast during the annual 10-day event that ends today cater to the taste of the rough: "Ladies arm wrestling," "Biggest beer belly," "Great cleavage," "Best tattoo" and "Bikini pull-off."

But behind that "Easy Rider" appearance are people such as Roger McColaugh, 48, a mortician from Xenia, Ohio, who is attending his first Bike Week with two friends. McColaugh bought a Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic in 1994 after, he said, "I finally talked my wife into letting me buy one."

"I just enjoy the freedom of air flowing through my hair," he said. "Except Florida has a helmet law."

Today's typical biker, in fact, is more likely an executive than a rebel, more a settled-down baby boomer than a bad boy, says the Motorcycle Industry Council, a national trade association that counts 6 million motorcycles on American roads. Studies show that although riders in the 1990s are still mostly male, they are older (over 33), more likely to be married, better educated and better off financially than they were in 1980.

After a slump in the 1980s, motorcycle sales are up 43 percent since 1991, with Hondas and Harley-Davidsons leading in market share, the council said. Beverly St. Clair, a spokeswoman for the trade group, said that more people were looking for ways to relax from the stress of work or "out trying to recapture their youth."

The stereotypical image of bikers derived from Hollywood and news coverage of motorcycle gangs such as the Hell's Angels is far from the reality of Daytona Beach's Bike Week, the largest motorcycle event in the country, now in its 57th year. An event that includes motorcycle races, swap meets and parties can at times become a fest of camaraderie as bikers show off and admire new paint jobs and chrome pipes.

Although the roar of motorcycles often drowns out conversations, police say that, as a group, the bikers are no more rowdy than students on spring break or the race car crowds that stage their own invasions of the city at other times of the year.

In fact, the bikers are greeted with welcome signs everywhere, at gas stations, upscale hotels and shops -- some of which draw most of their annual income from the $282 million that the week generates in spending by both bikers and the tourists from all over the world who come to gawk.

At the Boot Hill Saloon on Main Street, a thoroughfare closed to all traffic except motorcycles during Bike Week, Gary Gehris says that most of the several thousand people who fill his bar and parking lot from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. are older, mellower and friendlier. "People say excuse me even when you bump into them," Gehris noted.

"Most of these people are on vacation," said Michael Hires, 52, a graphics artist from the area who has attended Bike Week for 33 years. "They have no agendas, no ax to grind. Before, if you tried to prove yourself, nobody could stop you. There were no DUI laws so it was a continual drunk. Now people can't afford to act like that. They have families and jobs."

Women, the "chicks" on the back of the bikes who were often treated more like property than significant others, increasingly ride in front. They now account for about 8 percent of all motorcycle owners, compared with 1 percent in the 1960s, according to the motorcycle council.

"I got a divorce, got a motorcycle and came to Daytona," said Sharon Morse, a 50-year-old machine shop owner from Michigan who owns a winter home here. "You get so stressed out and you start riding and everything kind of oozes away. It's like 'ooooh.' "

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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